One of the principal emphases of Janine Wedel's excellent new book, "Shadow Elite", is the privatization of power. In some respects, that's a strange turn of phrase.
After all, throughout modern history, the forces of capitalism have wielded privatized power--creating people and corporations with a great deal of influence. And today, some of the most massive accretions of power are indisputably private. Think ExxonMobil and the price of a barrel of oil; General Electric and the now irreversible pollution of the Hudson River; or Goldman-Sachs and the recent Wall Street failures and subsequent bailouts.
Certain private corporations, some would contend, long before Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton deregulated America, the stultifying effects of the Cold War wore off, or government was reinvented--all transmogrifying forces in Wedel's text--were far too powerful, even causing many governments to look powerless in comparison. But the privatization of power today, in one respect in particular, seems different and deadly dangerous. That is the privatization of power wielded for the public good, described in some detail in "Shadow Elite".
No aspect of this phenomenon more vividly demonstrates this point than the privatization of war. Killing people for state purposes--and risking the lives of one's own citizens for those same purposes--should be the ultimate public power in a democratic federal republic such as ours. Yet war's privatization proceeds at an alarming pace.
For example, for several years the Department of Defense has circumvented Congressionally-mandated limits on the size of the armed forces by privatizing those forces' functions. Today, battlefield strength in both Iraq and Afghanistan is roughly doubled by the presence of private contractors. Indeed, without the hundreds of thousands of private contractors working for the government, the U.S. could not sustain its wars in either Iraq or Afghanistan.
One clear outcome of this privatization of public power, besides the doubling of battlefield strength, is the increasing ease with which the executive branch has usurped the power to make war from the legislative branch where men such as Washington, Madison, and Franklin clearly placed it. This executive facility for making war means more war as well, as Madison, "the father of the Constitution," so eloquently warned more than two centuries ago.
Similarly, the so-called reconstruction and stability operations (or "counterinsurgency operations" as the new professors of war label these efforts) that are underway in Afghanistan and winding down somewhat in Iraq would be impossible without private contractors. And, as Wedel points out in "Shadow Elite," today these private contractors not only carry out public functions but oversee, supervise, and manage other contractors who perform such functions.
Such privatization of public power has almost obliterated the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). On any given day in either Iraq or Afghanistan, it would be impossible for any government--i.e., public--individual or office to report definitively on what is happening with development aid in that country. Private contractors possess that information, not public officials. And since information is power--and its possession often leads to accountability as well, something most contractors want nothing to do with--these contractors guard it zealously, releasing it only to gain new contracts and increase profits.
Such developments can mean only one thing: more war more incompetently executed and more long, drawn-out, seemingly never-ending post-conflict operations costing billions and even trillions of taxpayer dollars, generating high profitability for the private corporations and individuals who increasingly are responsible for conducting such operations.
Madison once wrote: "Those who are to conduct a war cannot in the nature of things, be proper or safe judges whether a war ought to be commenced, continued, or concluded....Hence it has grown into an axiom that the executive is the department of power most distinguished by its propensity to war: hence it is the practice of all states, in proportion as they are free, to disarm this propensity of its influence."
Sadly, today we are witnessing the very opposite of this, no matter who is president, no matter which political party is in power. Our executive's "propensity to war" may be disguised as combating terrorists, but if we simply examine the balance of exchange we obliterate that disguise: the United States has spent almost two trillion dollars in response to an attack by al-Qa'ida that cost that organization about $500,000 to carry out.
Moreover, we kill more citizens on the highways of this country in a single year than have been killed in all the terrorist attacks against us in our history.
One of the principal reasons for this repudiation of what our Founding Fathers declared most prudent about the war power is the privatization of that power. For those who participate, it is a hugely profitable enterprise. For the nation, it is extremely dangerous.